ST. LOUIS – There were tears in the eyes of several Missouri State players leaving the court late Friday night as the Bears’ basketball season ended. And that’s a good thing.
Tears mean you care, and all through the bumps and bruises of Friday night’s Missouri Valley Conference Tournament quarterfinal slugfest and all the ups and downs of the season, this Missouri State team cared. And it played hard to the finish line.
Unfortunately for the Bears, one final extended scoring drought in the second half was too much to overcome in a 54-51 loss to the favored Southern Illinois Salukis at Enterprise Center.
“SIU brought it to us and we brought it back,” Bears senior Donovan Clay said. “They made one extra three and that determined the game, right there.”
Southern Illinois took advantage on a 7-minute, 7-second scoreless stretch — after the Bears had seemingly withstood a run from the third-seeded Salukis. SIU scored 11 points as the Bears floundered to make shots, or even get anything resembling good shots, against a cranked-up defensive pressure.
So it will be the Salukis (23-9) advancing to Saturday’s semifinals against Drake while Missouri State goes home with a final 17-15 record.
Bears had shot to send the game to overtime
Even with the offensive shortcomings, the Bears had a chance in the final seconds to extend the season. But Kendle Moore’s 24-foot 3-pointer from in front of the Missouri State bench was off the mark just ahead of the horn.
As Southern Illinois celebrated, Missouri State players hugged and consoled one another walking off the floor. Coach Dana Ford said he told his players — all of whom but Clay and sub Raphe Ayres were playing in their first Missouri Valley Conference Tournament — that he was proud of the improvement and resolve.
“When adversity hits like today, you stay together and you get tighter,” Ford said afterward. “I’m very proud of them. The group really grew as the season went on and molded themselves into a very respectable, good unit and did it with a lot of inexperienced players.
“High-character guys. I just encouraged them about moving forward. Together.”
That is the obvious question in the new NCAA world of the transfer portal and instant mobility. After a near-complete makeover coming into 2022-23, the Bears have a terrific nucleus — if they all decide to stick around.
“I’d love to have all our guys back,” Ford said. “They’re great kids with talent and they have so much more room for growth and improvement. They’re fantastic off the floor, in the classroom and community.”
‘If we stay together and grow, the sky’s the limit’
A rainbow over the post-game gloom came from senior Donovan Clay, the team’s unquestioned best all-around player.
“I think I’m gonna come back; it’s been my family,” Clay said of using an extra season of eligibility from the COVID-19 year. It had been assumed most of the way that Clay would pursue professional ball sooner than later.
Now, he can become a four-year Bear and a legacy player by returning and helping the program take the next step.
Clay seems to have grown fond of his developing role as a leader of a group that could be a force in the Valley next season. Clay cited freshman guard Damien Mayo Jr.
“He is one tough dude, who came in as a true freshman and played hard,” Clay said, also mentioning Alston Mason, Chance Moore and Jonathan Mogbo. “The younger guys bring a lot of juice to our team.”
Clay’s words about returning were music to Mayo’s ears. The tough-as-a-nut rookie improved rapidly over the course of the season, as did sophomores Mason, Mogbo and Moore. And there were others.
“This being my first year of playing college basketball and showing me the ropes, I was just thankful,” Mayo said. “I just love this team, having Donny and all the vets. All of them tell me I can be a great player.
“It was a blessing and I feel like if we stay together and grow, the sky’s the limit.”
The pairing of Missouri State and SIU brought to mind the boom days of Arch Madness, when the schools would have large and boisterous followings for some memorable matchups. This one was loud at times, especially on the SIU side, in front of a meager 7,049 fans in the big building.
Salukis erase big deficit to earn victory
From the Bears’ perspective, no game in the history between the team stands out more than 2005, when they rallied from 21 down late in the first half to upset the No. 1 seeded and nationally ranked Salukis.
Eighteen years later, it was SIU rallying from a big deficit to beat Missouri State for the third time this season. Once trailing by 13 in the first half, the Salukis closed within five by halftime and went on an 8-0 run early in the second half to grab the lead, 35-34, on two Marcus Domask free throws.
Lance Jones’ first basket in 10 attempts gave SIU a 39-37 lead with 12:41 remaining. Coach Dana Ford called time out, his team with only seven points over 14 game minutes since leading 30-18.
Out of the time out, the Bears got a short jumper from Clay and a defensive stop before Chance Moore’s rebound basket for a two-point Bears’ lead.
Mayo’s layup with 9:06 left extended the lead to 45-39 and the scenario looked promising. But the Bears then went cold again as SIU turned up the furnace. The Salukis used an 11-0 run for a 50-45 lead with 3:46 remaining.
Clay’s layup broke the 8-minute, 7-second scoreless stretch and, after an SIU turnover, Clay scored again to cut the gap to 52-49 at 1:02. The Salukis made an unbelievably bad turnover as the Bears pressured the in-bounds, but misfired as the shot clock wound down.
Again, the Salukis tried to implode with another baffling turnover. This time, Mogbo’s dunk at the 30-second mark made it a one-point game.
With the shot clock no longer a factor, the Bears had to foul. SIU got the ball in Domask’s hands and the Salukis’ best shooter made two free throws. With time for one final possession, in need of a tying 3-point, the Bears wound up in something of a scramble mode. Moore’s attempt as the seconds ticked away was wide.
Bears eager to break NCAA Tournament drought
And so it goes for Missouri State and its most gnawing statistic of all. The program has failed to reach the NCAA Tournament since 1999. Next year will mark a quarter century. Crowds for home games are dwindling. The most dreaded word of all — apathy — is in play.
Ford understands that fans are desperate to get back to the Big Dance and the relevance that comes with winning the league. But he made it clear that the current crop of players should not bear the brunt of the NCAA agony.
“Our group that we’ll have next year is not responsible for that long drought. They’re only responsible for how they play next year,” Ford said. “Number two, it’s currently a challenge. At the moment, our league is not what it was in 1999, when three or four teams were gonna go.
“Right now we’re sitting up here thinking the winner on Sunday is the only team that goes. It’s our plan next year to put a group together to get to Sunday and play for it.
“Fans are supposed to be frustrated. That’s the joy of being a fan. I can tell Missouri State fans, when that moment comes, when we go back to the tournament — whether I’m the coach or somebody else is — it’s gonna be a joyful moment.”
Perhaps Clay, Mayo and others who wiped tears on Friday night will be a part of that joyful moment in about 365 days.
Missouri Valley Conference Tournament
At Enterprise Center, St. Louis
Bradley 72, Northern Iowa 66
Indiana State 94, Belmont 91
Drake 74, Murray State 62
Southern Illinois 54, Missouri State 51
Saturday’s semifinals (CBS Sports Net)
2:35 p.m. – Bradley vs. Indiana State
5:05 p.m. – Drake vs. Southern Illinois
Sunday’s championship (CBS)